RITM to study use of saliva samples for COVID-19 testing, DOST allots P18 million

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 27 2020 08:01 PM

MANILA — Getting tested for COVID-19 can be quite uncomfortable, especially with the insertion of a 6-inch swab into your nose and throat.

Now, scientists are looking at the use of saliva samples instead to reduce discomfort and exposure between patients and health workers.

Following the United States’ decision to allow saliva samples for emergency use, the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology (DOST) on Thursday said it would be funding a Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) study on the said technique.

“We are not sure whether this is really possible in the Philippines,” said Dr. Jaime Montoya, Executive Director of the DOST-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, who pointed out that the studies done abroad are limited and only involve a small sample size. 

“So the committee on lab experts of the DOH requested the DOST to actually look into this possibility,” he added. “A proposal came from RITM to look at the possibility of using saliva for specimens for diagnosis of COVID-19.”

Montoya said the study, which will cost P18 million, will involve the participation of around 200 suspect COVID-19 cases who will undergo the collection of both saliva and swab samples.

“Ico-compare 'yan sa swab. So kung ikaw ay sasali, gagawan ka ng swab, gagawan ka din ng saliva testing,” he told ABS-CBN News in a phone interview.

(It will be compared to swab testing results. So if you are a participant, you will be swabbed and you will also undergo saliva testing.)

He said saliva testing can be really convenient, especially since those who get swabbed may end up feeling the urge to gag or vomit.

“Kaya lang ang disadvantage n'yan at least sa mga data na lumalabas, parang mas sensitive pa rin 'yung swab,” Montoya said.

(However, the disadvantage of that, at least based on the data that is public, swab seems to be more sensitive.)

Montoya said that if they finalize their requirements and protocol, the study can start within two weeks.

While other countries have looked into the possibility of having patients collect their own saliva samples to further reduce exposure to health workers and vice versa, as well as to lower the cost of testing, Montoya said that might not be done yet in the Philippines.

He said there are specific instructions that need to be followed, including doing it before the patient eats and ensuring there is enough sample for the test.

The saliva will then undergo the same polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to check if the SARS-CoV-2 virus is present.

GoNegosyo founder and Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion, who has been pushing for saliva testing as part of expanded testing efforts with ProjectArk, said on Thursday that he has also reached out to DOST.

Montoya confirmed this but said their collaboration would be different from the RITM study.

During a virtual event on Thursday morning, Concepcion said he has spoken with the distributor of saliva testing technology developed in Israel.

“And Glenn Yu of SeaOil is a distributor for that in the Philippines. And they want to start doing trials,” he added.

Montoya said while they do not have much information on the project, they were told that the private sector’s saliva testing study involves the use of a kit that would require Food and Drug Administration approval. He said the kit would also involve the use of artificial intelligence or a computer that processes the results.

Concepcion said their proposal for saliva testing is part of their group’s effort to make COVID-19 testing in the country more accessible and affordable.

While such studies normally run for 6 months, Montoya said they would try and finish the RITM study within 3 months so the country could immediately use it if it is found effective.